17 April 2009

PEACE CORPS TRAINING - not for the faint of heart

Click on map for larger image.

Peace Crops training is different for every country and every group. Here you will find the saga of my training to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in Brazil.

After filling out a lengthy application during a Peace Corps recruitment event at my college and before I was accepted for training, a background check had been completed. Several of my professors told me they had been visited by FBI agents, asking questions about me.
I received word, several months later, that I had been accepted for a PC “advanced training program” for Chile. I had studied Latin and French in high school and college, but couldn’t speak a word of Spanish. To get a head start, I arranged to meet a Spanish major over coffee once a week for tutoring.
The “advanced training program” meant that we would train for about 10 weeks during the summer between our Junior and Senior years of college, receive language tapes throughout our senior year, then train several more weeks after graduation and eventually become Peace Corps Volunteers.
Soon I received a letter saying I would be in a Brazilian program instead of serving in Chile, so I dropped the Spanish tutoring. In June 1966, I flew to California and checked in at Sacramento State College, a wonderful location for our training.
Training was difficult, very difficult.
Most of us had to learn a language we had never studied. We went through a short battery of tests to determine our ability to learn a language and were grouped with others of similar skill levels. Each week, based on our individual progress, we might stay in our current language group or move to a higher or lower group. I stayed in the lowest group throughout training.
The trainers let us off the hook at breakfast, but we were expected to speak Portuguese at lunch and dinner. Despite being somewhat of a motor mouth in English, I listened but barely spoke a word.
I didn’t seem to have the skill for learning a language. I had been a mediocre Latin and French student. As a child I had frequent and severe ear aches. Although I could hear even very soft speech, I had a hard time distinguishing sounds. One day, a trainer tried over and over to get me to say ‘prazer’ while I kept hearing ‘plazer.’ My biggest problem was that I had no confidence. I thought I would never learn another language ---eventually I found out I was wrong about that ---but in training, I was sure I was hopeless.
For the most part our language trainers were Brazilian university students studying in the U.S. Most were from Rio, São Paulo, or other large modern cities, and most were from the upper crust of Brazilian society. Only later did we realize this was a disadvantage because we were likely to be working, at least part of the time, with poor, uneducated people, who had lost many of their teeth ---rendering them difficult to understand ---and who spoke Portuguese much like someone in Appalachia might speak English, with unusual accents and lots of colloquialisms and regional slang.
We were expected to learn and understand local customs and as much about the history geography, popular culture, religion, social norms, food, and customs of Brazil as could be crammed into our heads. We took a course in group dynamics and another in community organization. We needed a lot of information on health concerns in the areas we would serve, including first aid skills.
In PE classes, we were taught the basics of soccer (long before almost anyone played it in the U.S.) and had to pass a swimming and “drown-proofing” test.
We were supplied with long lists of recommended items or those we needed to take to Brazil, including a two-year supply of tampons since they were unavailable there. We were also told the texture of the toilet paper in Brazil was reminiscent of crepe paper, but that filling our footlockers with toilet paper would be a waste of space.
We spent part of each evening in the college language lab and had a class in which we simply practiced Portuguese sounds. Occasionally we watched a Brazilian movie or learned song lyrics in Portuguese.

Except for mealtimes, we were in classes from early morning until ten o’clock at night. Then, many of us walked to a Shakey’s Pizza parlor to drink beer and let loose after each grueling day. But even there, we played a children's game, singing a Portuguese song called Escravos de Jó, passing beer mugs around the table instead of the traditional match boxes.
Classes continued on Saturday mornings, but we had the rest of the weekend off. We often went into town by bus to catch a movie. One weekend someone organized a trip to Lake Tahoe and Yosemite.

Here I am at Yosemite (age 20).
I think that is my friend Roy (another trainee) driving
the car, but the photo is so dark it is difficult to tell.

We had to learn a lot of DON’Ts. Don’t make the customary OK sign, because, in Brazil, it means the same thing as an extended middle finger does in the U.S. Unmarried women should not be alone with men. Slacks were okay in big cities, resorts, and beaches, but not in small towns. (This changed over the two years I was in Brazil.) Don’t drink water unless it has been boiled twenty minutes, then filtered, yet don’t be rude by refusing coffee one knows hasn’t boiled the required twenty minutes. Don’t flaunt your money or expensive cameras. It was recommended that we not become involved romantically with Brazilians. That was a useless “don’t” ---most of us were single, 22 to 25, and we were likely going to be involved romantically with either another volunteer or a Brazilian.
Training included a battery of psychological tests, lots of interviews with the administrators, trainers, and psychologists, along with frequent evaluations.
Trainees were in jeopardy of being deselected at any time, for any reason. Two guys were let go midway through our summer of training because of racist attitudes that were unacceptable to the PC and would have been problematic in a country as racially diverse as Brazil. At the end of the summer, one guy was let go because it was suspected he was gay. One of my best pals, a wonderfully funny man, was deselected because he made a joke out of nearly everything. He would answer questions on the psychological tests that required one to fill in bubbles and “make no other marks on the answer sheet,” by responding to a question like “Do you always follow directions?” by writing the word ‘YES’ on the paper. He should have known that kind of behavior would not be appreciated.
I’m not sure what all the criteria were for “passing” training, but it often appeared as if the trainers would put banana peels in our paths just to see if we would slip. It seemed rather juvenile to me, but that appeared to be the modus operandi for PC training at that time. The most feared man on the staff was the PC psychologist. I guess it might all have been part of a plan to toughen us up or to see how we would react to stress or the unexpected. A Portuguese word that was bantered about a lot was "flexibilidade" ---flexibility, something we would need a lot of in Brazil.
Some of my Sacramento training is a blur to me now. I'm sure I was sleep deprived. We often went to bed after walking back from Shakey's after 1:00 a.m. and had to be up early for 7:00 a.m. breakfast and our first classes at 8:00. We were in classes or physical activity about twelve hours a day, and even when not in class, we were trying to speak Portuguese or conversing with trainers about Peace Corps and Brazil.
It was probably the most intense and grueling educational experience I ever had.

As part of our training, we each spent three weeks working with a social agency. I worked in Tracy, CA with a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) worker. My humorous pal worked nearby with a migrant minister.
Our trainers decided that everyone located near Stockton should work on a migrant farm for a day, just to see what migrant workers experienced. We dragged ourselves from bed before dawn and went to the vacant lot in Stockton where trucks or buses arrived to carry workers to the fields. Men would shout out, “Thirty-two cents a crate for tomatoes. Thirty workers needed.” Some of the members of our group picked cucumbers. I was with a small group picking apricots.
We were totally unprepared. We took no water or food with us, wrongly assuming it would be provided. The temperature was close to 100 degrees. The guys picking cucumbers had a rough time. They had to bend over all day in the scorching sun.
Ours was a hot, nasty job, but at least we were in the shade. However, the trees were planted close together so the branches from each tree touched the next tree, holding in the oppressive heat. We could pick apricots from the lower branches of the small trees without much effort. Ladders were available for higher branches. Some of the migrant workers could fill two crates in the time six of us filled one.
Because we had no food or water, we ate apricots ---lots of apricots ---mostly for the moisture. I was very fond of apricots, but after eating a crate of them that day, I could not look at an apricot for many years to come.

Meanwhile, a tragedy happened with another group of trainees working in a different area. They were helping at a summer day camp for impoverished children. One day the scheduled activity was a field trip to a local swimming hole. Sadly, one of the children drowned.
One of my worst fears is that I might be involved in an incident that hurt or killed someone. Even if it were an accident and no fault of my own, I can’t imagine how I would live with that. I empathized with the trainees involved.
We were never informed of the details ---and those involved were instructed not to discuss it ---so I don’t know if someone was negligent or if it were an unavoidable accident. There were rumors of a law suit.
The Peace Corps decided to deselect all the trainees who were present when the drowning incident took place.
It was a sad event, especially for the family of the victim. But is was also sad for the Peace Corps and for those trainees who would not be joining the rest of us in Brazil.

I made it through the summer and returned home full of excitement about the coming year. During my last year of college when I would complete my B.S. degree in Art Education, I was supposed to listen to Portuguese tapes and it was suggested that we become involved in some kind of volunteer work. I had good intentions, but my senior year was hectic. I was taking more than the recommended number of courses during the fall semester. During the spring semester I student taught while taking two required education classes. So I didn’t do volunteer work and only half-heartenedly listened to my language tapes.
My training group met over Christmas break in Chicago, but I had an emergency appendectomy, so I didn’t make it.
In the spring, I started to get my required inoculations. I believe the total was about 18 shots for everything from tetanus to cholera.

After graduation, we met in Philadelphia for a few days near the beginning of July 1967. From there, we flew to Miami where we had a long wait because of a mechanical problem on the plane. Finally we left for a very long and uncomfortable flight. We stopped briefly at the airport in Caracas, then flew on to Rio.
After a few days of orientation and sight seeing in Rio, we were invited to a reception at the American ambassador’s home where we were officially sworn in.
We were divided into three groups for six more weeks of training. One flew to the state of Goiás, another to Espírito Santo, and my group to Bahia. (See map at the top of this post.)
After a few days in Salvador (which became my favorite Brazilian city) the Bahia group was sent to Dias d’Avila, a small town outside of Salvador, where we lived with locals. I stayed with a family consisting of an older couple, their granddaughter, her husband and their small boy Paulo. After about three weeks, I was moved to a pensão because the elderly gentleman was admitted to the hospital and a house guest was too much work when the family would be with him most of the time.
My Portuguese skills didn’t seem to improve with training. The trainers informed me that I would be deselected if I didn't make progress soon.
The trainers still seemed to be trying to trip us up and would question us about the oddest things. I was called to an interview one day because someone (?) said they had seen me flirting with a Brazilian stranger on the Lacerda Elevador (a large public elevator that carries commuters between the upper and lower sections of Salvador.) I had no idea what the psychologist was talking about. Someone may have asked me if I were an American ---a frequent occurrence ---and to be polite, I may have responded. In Salvador, I was always with another trainee ---mainly because I needed someone who could speak Portuguese better than I did ----so I referred him to the people I had spent time with in the city. It was not brought up again.
We made lots of fun of the PC psychologists (when they weren’t around, of course) because they seemed like such small, petty men ---and yes, they were all men ---who had an unnatural interest in everyone’s love life and seemed to get some perverse pleasure from watching us squirm.

Advanced training sounded like a great idea, but there were problems with the program so ours was the last such training group. We started out with about 106 trainees the previous summer. By the time we were ready to go to our PC sites in Brazil, only about 56 remained. During our senior year, some had decided PC was not for them. Some had received job offers or graduate assistantships or fellowships they felt they couldn’t pass up. A few had become romantically involved and didn’t want to leave their new loves. Others were let go by the Peace Corps for a number of reasons. Several dropped out during our in-country training. After flying us to California, putting us up at a college, paying the numerous staff and teachers, flying everyone to Chicago for the Chistmas holiday event, too many people dropped out to continue that type of program.
The Peace Corps has always run on a budget, less than what is allocated for the Army band, so unsuccessful programs had to be trashed for ones that were more cost effective.

Despite my terrible Portuguese language skills, Ralph, the state director for Bahia, fought for me to stay in Brazil. In his experience, anyone who had been trained as a teacher turned out to be an excellent Volunteer. Brunie, who had been in Brazil for about a year, was requesting a teacher ---primarily to teach English as a foreign language ---to be assigned to her town in the state of Sergipe, just north of Bahia along the Atlantic coast.
I suspect that Ralph knew that Brunie, who spoke Portuguese beautifully, would be a good teacher and a hard taskmaster, which was exactly what I needed.

So, sometime in August of 1967, just a few days after turning 22, I arrived in Nossa Senhora da Glória, my Peace Corps site, anxious to begin my two-year commitment, but barely able to speak the language ---and the rest of this story can be found on other posts on this blog.

(©2009, C.J. Peiffer)

Click HERE for a post about how I went from a Portuguese illiterate to earning a 3+ (able to get along in all normal situations with some advanced vocabulary in a specialized field) on my final foreign service Portuguese language evaluation in July 1969. (Scores ranged from 0 to 5.)


  1. hey...nice blog... though i was not much aware of situation from Brazil.. but i always wanted to know more... !!

  2. I sooooo admire you for doing this. What a great cause and such an honorable thing. Thanks for explaining so much here. I, like many I'm quite sure, have often wondered the ins and outs.
    Great post......well done and bravo!!
    Take good care and.......

    Steady On
    Reggie Girl

  3. Carolina, I'm glad they train you so well. Working in the Peace Corps I'm sure is not easy. I admire you! :)

  4. I had no idea that this amount of training is required. What was I thinking?

  5. I feel your Portuguese language learning experience pain! I was in the bottom group all through training. Had the feeling they wanted to open an even lower group just for me. :-) I figured I would be deselected, but made it through. Once in BR, I picked up the language quickly but not before saying a lot of silly mistakes that gave the Brazilians a good laugh.

    Keep on writing......

    Webmaster - Peace Corps Brazil

  6. Keep up the good work! Beautiful blog.